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'Twas the night before the night before...

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 12/23/1998 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

PHILADELPHIA – In a year filled with liars in the White House, bombs in
Baghdad, and smash-and-burn politics, this ol’ investigative reporter needs
to take time out to remember what this season means, and the special people
we’ve talked about in this HeartBeat corner of my world.

Of course, there were my mother and father; a valiant Ethiopian princess
named Aida Desta; street orphans in Addis Ababa; a soldier and his mate
struggling against injustice; a hunk of a granite who once played football
for the New York Giants, and even my search for the roots of my name -
Kerwood MacDonald Corbett.

It’s a time to remember Christmases past when those special days of my
youth centered on the miraculous birth of the Messiah and they weren’t so
encumbered with today’s swirl of commercialism. However, that was another
time.

While thumbing through books in a Borders store in the Philadelphia suburb
of Bryn Mawr yesterday, I ran across this beautiful Christmas story related
by Christian Herald’s John Gillies in R. Kent Hughes’ 1001 Great Stories -
Quotes (Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill.)

Let’s savor it for a while before the reality checks of war and violence
set in again: Sankey’s Song

The stocky, mustachioed man nervously paced the deck of a Delaware River
steamer, unbuttoning his frock coat, and regularly removing his derby to
wipe his brow. He looked much older than his thirty-five years.

It was unreasonably warm for a Christmas Eve.

The man stared at the passing Pennsylvania shoreline, thinking of his
family in Newcastle, some three hundred miles to the west, whom he might
not see this Christmas, unless he made his train connection in
Philadelphia. Christmas 1875.

“Pardon me, sir.”

“Aren’t you Ira Sankey, the gospel singer?”

He smiled at the lady and her husband … He thought he was gracious to
acknowledge that he was, indeed, Ira D. Sankey.

“We’ve seen your pictures in the newspapers.”

He had not wanted to be recognized: Not today, not tonight. He was tired,
fretful, and warm. Fact of the matter was, he was angry and provoked
with Mr. Moody.

“We thought you were still in England!” said the lady.

“We returned last week, Madam,” Mr. Sankey replied in resonant baritone
voice. And if Mr. Moody hadn’t insisted on more conferences and meetings,
he thought, he would have been home by now for Christmas with his family.
Instead he was a prisoner on a river steamer.

“Mr. Sankey, would you sing for us? It is Christmas Eve, and we’d love to
hear you.”

Mr. Sankey said he would sing, and his presence was announced loudly across the deck. As the people gathered, he pondered what he might sing. He wished he had his portable pump organ which had become an integral counterpart to his singing. But no matter. He would sing a Christmas carol or two, unaccompanied. Perhaps he would get the passengers to sing along with him.

He tried to shed his melancholy. He was a famous person, whether he liked
it or not, and he was not normally shy about his gifts. He was known on two
continents as the gospel singer, the song leader and soloist working with
Dwight L. Moody, who was surely the greatest evangelist of the day. Perhaps
God had intended it his way — for him to be in this place, on this boat, at
this particular time.

“I thought I would sing a carol or two.” He then added, “But somehow I feel
I should sing another song.”

“Sing one of your own songs!” shouted someone unseen. “Sing The
Ninety-And-Nine!” commanded another.

“No, thank you very much, but I know what I must sing.” He was smiling
broadly now, feeling much better about himself and the situation, enjoying
his congregation. “I shall sing a song by William Bradbury. And if you know
it, as I’m sure many of you do, hum along with me.”

Sankey began to sing.

“Savior, like a shepherd lead us,
Much we need Thy tender care;
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use Thy folds prepare;
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!
Thou has bought us. Thine we are.”

He sang all three verses. There was uncommon silence, and Ira Sankey felt
it would be inappropriate to sing anything else. So he simply wished
everyone a Merry Christmas, and the people murmured a greeting in return.
The silence returned, and he was alone again.

“Your name is Ira Sankey?”

“Yes.” He recognized neither the voice nor the man.

The man came out of the shadows. He was about his own age, with a beard
beginning to turn gray, and comfortably but not fastidiously dressed.
Perhaps he was in sales…

“Were you ever in the Army, Mr. Sankey?”

“Yes, I was. I joined up in 1860.”

“I wonder if you can remember back to 1862. Did you ever do guard duty, at
night, in Maryland?”

“Yes, I did!” Sankey felt a stab of memory and excitement. “It might have
been at Sharpsburg.”

“I was in the Army, too. The Confederate Army. And I saw you that night.”

Sankey looked at him warily.

“You were parading around in your blue uniform. Had you in my sights, you
standing there in the light of the full moon, which was right foolish of
you, you know.” The man paused. “Then you began to sing.”

Amazingly, Sankey remembered.

“You sang the same song you sang tonight, ‘Savior Like a Shepherd Lead
Us.’”

“I remember.”

My mother sang that song a lot, but I never expected no soldier to be
singing it at midnight on guard duty. Especially a Union soldier.” The man
sighed. “Obviously I didn’t shoot you.”

“And obviously I am grateful.” Sankey smiled.

“I always wondered who you were. Who it was I didn’t kill that night, on
account of his singing an old Sunday School song.”

Sankey shook his head.

“Frankly, up until tonight, the name of Ira Sankey wouldn’t have meant much
to me. Guess I don’t read the papers like I should. I didn’t know you’d
turn out to be so famous!” The man smiled for the first time. “But I reckon
I would have recognized the voice and the song anyplace.”

Sankey reflected on what might have been.

“Do you think we might talk a mite?” asked the man. “I think you owe it to
me. Very little has gone right for me. Not before the war. Not during it.
And not since.”

Ira Sankey put an arm around his former enemy. They found a place in a
quiet corner of the deck to sit and chat. Sankey’s impatience and anger had
passed. He no longer fretted that he might be delayed in seeing his family.
Christmas would soon be here. It always came but sometimes in the strangest ways.

The night was still warm but it seemed filled with brighter stars. Sankey
even thought he heard the sound of angels’ voices — singing, of course, and
singing the Good News.


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